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A Conversation with Penny Fuller (STRAWBERRY MANSION)

(After a successful festival run, starting with the 2021 Sundance FIlm Festival, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s trippy Strawberry Mansion is in select theaters now and drops digitally on Friday, February 25 via Music Box Films. Bears Rebecca Fonté interviewed Audley and Birney last spring and at that time, also interviewed one of the films stars, Penny Fuller. Here is that interview.)

Hammer to Nail: I love this film that you’re in.

Penny Fuller: I’m so glad. Can you explain it to me?

HtN: I know. That’s one of the things I like about it.

PF: I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I mean, in that sense. It was almost a year ago, and when I watched it, I thought, “Oh, oh, oh, is that what that was about?”

HtN: What did you first think when you read the script?

PF: Well, I loved her, my character, because I’m usually playing more rational people. Well, maybe not. Yes, lately, I’ve been being the rational one, not the wacky one. I’m not wacky, of course, it’s all quite serious what I’m talking about. I’d never done anything like this. I went down there to Baltimore from New York, because I live in New York now, and I walked into Strawberry Mansion, literally. There were all these people. I now know there’s a tribe of people I’ve never known before called Indies. They speak “Indieese.” They’re all wonderful. I want to be in that group. I don’t want to be here where I have to know all the real things going on. It was just so wonderful, and they were so committed and so full of belief. There was nothing weird about this movie. That’s just life. It was great. It was great. That’s the way I felt. I don’t know what I felt when I read it because I thought, “I’m not sure I understand it, but it will become clear.”

HtN: When you’re playing a character who’s got her mind going in several different places and racing around, what do you grab hold of as an actress? What do you try to play in the moment? Because you could be playing any number of things.

PF: I think that the best thing to do is to play each scene as though that were the world, to be totally committed to that scene and not know that in the next scene I’m going to be digging up chickens or whatever it is I am in the next scene. I think for that kind of person, because that’s who she kind of is in her perception, being an artist, as she is, and all those kinds of things. 

Kentucker Audley & Penny Fuller in “Strawberry Mansion”

HtN: My cat wanted to say hi by the way. [we are on zoom]

PF: Hi kitty cat. What’s your name?

HtN: He’s a big fan. It’s Buttons.

PF: Hi Buttons. Did Buttons like the movie too?

HtN: He did. He sat next to me the whole time, actually.

PF: Was he confused at all?

HtN: You know, I think he’s like you, he just kind of goes with it. He just let it happen. As long as you pet him every once in a while, and tell him it’s going to be okay. He doesn’t like things with loud bangs.

PF: Yes, yes. This was a non-loud bang film.

HtN: I love what you said about meeting a new tribe and the people, these indie film makers. I take it this is the first time you’ve worked on a film that you would really describe as indie?

PF: Yes. Now I want to go join the gang forever. I loved it. I loved it. It’s been nice in my third phase of acting, or roles, that I’m getting wacky and interesting or crotchety or interesting things, not just pushing the plot along because I’m the secretary or I’m the owner of the newspaper or something like that. You know?

HtN: Would you encourage more people in their–I love ‘third phase’– to do indies? Because I feel like you really added a gravitas to this film that it wouldn’t have had without you.

PF: Wow. Well, sure. I mean, because I’m in my third phase, I was brought up to believe that there was a real purpose to what I was doing, being an actor. But I was lucky enough to go to Northwestern by kind of almost mistake. The teacher there was so terrifying. I had transferred, so I had to take some make up courses before I could get into the real thing. She was so terrifying. I thought, “Well, I’m not studying with her.” So I got a role in a play directed by the other teacher. The next year I had to take Ms. Kraus, Elvina Kraus. I didn’t make it up. I went, I said, “Hello Ms. Kraus. I’d like to join your B42 class.” She had her glasses on. She said, “Yes. Have you done anything here?” I said, “Oh yes, ma’am. I did Kitty Duval in The Time Of Your Life. She said, [judgmentally] “Oh yes.”

HtN: Oh no.

PF: Then I had to take Greek drama because I had to get my degree in drama and theater. And she’d go around and she would give you a character and tell you what to do. You came in once, and she’d help you. Then this next time you got your grade. She came and she said, “Fuller, what are you going to do?” She said, “You’ll do Cassandra.” I said, “Yes, ma’am, Ms. Kraus.” I went to read Cassandra, and Cassandra’s the one who could see what was going to happen.

HtN: Oh, yep.

PF: Okay. I didn’t mean to insinuate that you didn’t know.

HtN: No, no. I’m with you. I bet you were hoping you would know what was going to happen.

PF: Yes. So I get up to do it, and usually she would say, “Cut! Next.” Or she could even say, “Cut! Flunk. Next.” So I’m going up there and I’m thinking, “Oh god, please let her say it soon because it’s long. ” “Oh flame and pain that sweeps me. Gods. Again, my god and Apollo, the pain,” is the way it starts. It goes from there. I hear, “Cut!” And I didn’t hear, “Flunk. Next.” She sent two…Dick Benjamin, Richard Benjamin. You know who I mean? The actor? Did all the Portnoy movies.

A still from “Strawberry Mansion”

HtN: Okay. [I looked him up, he was also in one of my favorites, Westworld]

PF: Dick Benjamin and John Cohannock you don’t know, who played Stanley when they did Streetcar at school. She said, “Benjamin, Cohannock, go up there on the stage.” I’m standing there, and she said, “Now, pull down and try to pull her to the floor.” I said, “What?” She said, “Don’t let them.” I said, “What? Okay.” So I’m fighting against it and they’re pulling me down. She said, “Okay, that’s the way she feels about what’s pulling her to say what she doesn’t want to say and see what she doesn’t want to see, so go, ‘Oh flame. And pain.'” Then she comes and she slings me around so I’m dizzy, like, “Oh flame and pain that sweeps me once again.” Then she does something else and I’m rolling on the floor. At the end, she said, “Well, there, I knew you could do it.” What she did was she broke me like a colt. You know?

HtN: Yeah, yeah.

PF: That was the moment I became an actress. Did you see that movie The Dig that’s just opened on Netflix with –

HtN: Yeah, yeah.

PF: …Ralph Fiennes. We didn’t know that he was going through all that to become one of the best character actors now that I’ve ever seen. He was so wonderful as a leading man. But the reason I liked that movie is because there was space for me to do it, rather than it all being given to me. Do you know what I mean?

HtN: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s a good lead back into Strawberry Mansion, because that is the whole thing with that film is, is that leaves openings at the end. I’m not even sure who he fell in love with or what’s going to happen. Did he fall in love with the version of you from 40 years ago, and now he’s actually not going to be able to be with her, and now he’s going…I don’t know, it’s sort of like a take on Harold and Maude a little bit.

Penny Fuller:

Yeah. Did you ask Kentucker? What did he say? Or Albert?

HtN: You know, they don’t want to give too much up. We did have a long talk about love, which was really fun.How does she feel about him in the house? How does she know that he’s going to save her? One other thing I love about the movie, and then I think I’ll let you go, because I probably could just talk to you forever because you’re so fun.

PF: Thank you.

HtN: One of the things I love about the energy of the film is he’s going on, and you’re like, “Oh, he’s the tax auditor. This is going to be a battle. He’s going to come into your life and destroy it.” So he walks in, but you’re like, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Let me give you everything. Let me tell you everything.” She’s so open, and the energy is so different, I think, than what he was expected. Right?

PF: Well, he’s another person. I had to do me, and me was this, and he was that. I mean, he was the quiet, subdued sort of not knowing exactly what the heck was going on. As I say, if you commit yourself to what you’ve decided to do, which was I was to be completely honest about my inventing the ad blocker and my stuff. There was nothing to be shy about. I was just committed. I think committed is the word. I think acting is about commitment to what you decide.

HtN: When was the last time, though, when she even had a visitor?

PF: Well, they did cut something. This is not a visitor. A long time. Long time. She had her husband, now dead, had made huge, a giant statues, sort of statues, models of himself in all the rooms so that she wouldn’t feel lonely.

HtN: Of course.

PF: Yeah. Well, they’re not there anymore, but I didn’t feel lonely anyway when I saw the movie because I knew they were there. I believe that the kind of person she is, or the way that you play her, is that it’s total belief in everything you do. There’s not triple levels..

HtN: Yeah.

PF: Even when she’s telling two stories at the same time, she’s so committed in the one until she gets to that one. It’s just total laser vision to what she’s talking about. 

HtN: Absolutely. Okay. Let me ask you a question now that has nothing to do with the film.

PFr: Okay.

HtN: Because we’re living through impeachment number two. You made a movie about the previous most-important thing to ever happen politically.

PF: Yes.

HtN: Now, in the grand scheme of things, that is going to seem so minor. I’m curious about when you were on set for All the President’s Men, did you think about the sort of political implications of codifying, making the definitive movie about what had happened, in a way that people are going to watch it for the next 30 years? We don’t have that movie yet. I’m wondering, in five years when they make a movie about the Trump impeachment, what will it feel like to be on set?

PFr: I want to go back and tell you something that I think you’ll find interesting about the original one, which is that we were the extras as well, so when there were pictures of the newsroom, it was us and not extras, so that when we did come on, you either subconsciously or actually realized that we were the ones running around in the room. So It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve done some of those, and it’s about time to do my scene, my big scene. My only scene, I think. I said to Redford, “Listen, I have to ask you something. Why do you think, since this woman” -– Marilyn Berger is what her real name was -– “Marilyn Berger was such a good journalist. Why did she sit on that story? How could she sit on it like that? Especially then, when it explains so much or it reveals so much.” He said, “Huh.” He left where we were sitting having a cup of coffee and comes back and he said, “I just called her.” I said, “Called who?” He said, “Marilyn Berger.” I said, “You did?” He said, “Yes, and I asked her, and she said, ‘Well, I guess I just didn’t have the taste for the jugular that those two guys had.'” And that was my big line in the movie.

HtN: Yeah.

PF: Because he said, “That’s perfect. That’s wonderful, because people will be asking the same thing as you were asking.” So that’s why that line is in there. So, what was your question? But don’t you like that story?

HtN: I love that story. It’s great. It’s amazing. 

PF: What’s the question?

HtN: The question was, what did it feel like being on set knowing that you were making the thing that people are going to watch for years about that issue?

PF: You know, I think that’s my same answer that I’ve been saying all along. I think, it’s not that I don’t think, but when I’m there, I’m there. When I go home, I’m out in the world. Well, I had read the book, and of course I’d lived through it. I’d stayed, when I was doing a musical in a pre-Broadway, in Washington, at the Watergate.

HtN: Oh wow.

PF: But I don’t think I really put it in the concept of the bigger world. It’s not because we’re all dimwits, but the bigger world is not going to help us in our smaller world. You know? I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. A long time ago. I don’t think I knew I was making history. I mean, participating in history.

– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)

Music Box Films; Kentucker Audley, Albery Birney, Strawberry Mansion movie Penny Fuller
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Bears Rebecca Fonté is a transgender filmmaker, festival programmer, and journalist. She founded Other Worlds Film Festival after two years as the Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival. Her SciFi shorts ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE, PRENATAL, and THE SECRET KEEPER have played 150+ festivals including Fantasia, SciFi London, Boston SciFi, FilmQuest, Austin Film Festival and Dances With Films. Her LGBTQIA Horror short CONVERSION THERAPIST made its world premiere at Inside Out in Toronto and US Premiere at aGLIFF. Her feature thriller iCRIME, which she wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Breaking Glass/Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears Rebecca also was one of the producers on the Sundance Jury-Award Winning short THE PROCEDURE. In 2021, after five years on the Board of Directors she was made Artistic Director of aGLIFF, the oldest Queer film festival in the Southwest.

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